Top AF official for Europe/Africa tackles new, old challenges
August 31, 2013
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — It’s been a busy month for Gen. Frank Gorenc, the new commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa.
Since pinning on his fourth star and assuming leadership Aug. 2 of a command that’s as geographically spread out as it is culturally and politically diverse, Gorenc has landed on both familiar and unfamiliar ground.
He has made his first trip to Africa on the job, visiting Ghana, Niger and Djibouti, learning about a vast continent that’s nothing like Europe.
“I took my trip to Africa and it was an eye opener,” Gorenc said in an interview Thursday at his office at USAFE-AFAFRICA headquarters on Ramstein.
“The Africa experience and the Europe experience, they couldn’t be more” different. “We’re building partnership capacity in both areas but in the case of Africa, we’re dealing with fledgling air forces, where just a little bit of building partnership capacity effort has exponential benefits, not just in air power but in … force protection, personnel recovery, medical issues” and other areas, he said.
Gorenc’s family emigrated from Slovenia, then part of the former Yugoslavia, to the United States when he was four. He’s comfortable in Europe, having left here only about 18 months ago, after commanding Europe’s numbered air force, Third Air Force, for nearly three years.
Third Air Force then didn’t have responsibility for air operations in Africa. Now it does, and as the commander of Air Forces Africa, which Third Air Force falls under, so does Gorenc.
One of the goals in Africa is to “continue to develop those areas where we have common values and maybe common interests,” he said, “and down the road, a partnership there may be as effective as one of our most trusted NATO alliance members.”
Those NATO partnerships in Europe, Gorenc said, can’t be underestimated, even as the Pentagon looks eastward with its so-called “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific region.
“While our strategy calls for a shift to the Pacific, it also calls for fighting coalitions,” he said.
“The fact of the matter is, many of our ... coalition partners are European, and they have been stepping up to the plate.” He cited NATO’s 2011 air bombardment that resulted in the ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. “And it’s only because we have developed and nurtured those relationships over the 70 years that is NATO — and in a bilateral way — to where you can do things like that.”
As Gorenc balances an array of complex and diverse missions in Africa and Europe, he’s also focused on an issue that he says threatens the mission: that of sexual assault.
“I’ve talked to groups of airmen on this already. It is the chief’s No. 1 priority,” Gorenc said, referring to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III. “As such, across the leadership team in the Air Force, it is our No. 1 priority. It’s such a corrosive event … that it significantly takes away from the mission.”
USAFE-AFAFRICA plans to fully comply with a new Air Force policy that requires commanders to begin the separation process for airmen found to have committed or attempted to commit sexual misconduct, Gorenc said.
Where there was perceived discretion before, “there is none now,” he said. “The important part of that is to communicate that to our airmen, so not only do the commanders understand it, but everybody understands it. So, nobody’s surprised when they’re going ‘what are you doing?’”
Time will tell whether “there’s any unintended consequences,” he said, since the policy is so new and has been applied to few if any cases. “It’s a very bold move and I think it’s right for the time and it reflects the magnitude of the corrosiveness and the impact that it has on our mission.”
A single incident, he says, “consumes our airmen to large numbers, it consumes their families and it consumes our resources.
“We’re certainly happy to use the resources to provide help to the victim and go after the perpetuators … but it is all-consuming, moreso than any other crime that we’re dealing with, and so we need to get our arms around it,” he said.
Equally challenging is dealing with defense budget constraints, especially considering the command’s reach and dual mission supporting both U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command.
Gorenc commands about 33,000 active-duty members and civilians, directing air operations over a theater spanning more than 19 million square miles. Gorenc also is the commander of the Allied Air Command that has its headquarters at Ramstein.
Whether USAFE-AFAFRICA will see personnel or infrastructure reductions remains to be seen, Gorenc said.
“We continue to look at ways, particularly adjustments to infrastructure, that may be excess to need,” he said.
Budget numbers and flying hours for fiscal 2014 are not yet decided, Gorenc said. He’s optimistic that it won’t be as dire as the current budget year.
Fiscal 2013 “was a really painful event,” he said, particularly because of the unprecedented grounding of some Air Force flying squadrons, including several in USAFE-AFAFRICA.
“I would not have expected in my Air Force career that I would have ever seen units stood down,” said Gorence, a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate and decorated fighter pilot. “It’s not something that we normally do because the development of our Air Force requires continuing activity.”
“We’re not anticipating” that will happen again, he said, but “it’s too early to tell.”
The streak of recent good weather and effective management of the flying hour program has “allowed us to make great strides in getting back on step but I don’t think we’ve recovered yet,” he said.
Gorenc said the command, if called on, is ready to contribute to any U.S. military action in Syria.
“Everybody is completely outraged at what happened in Syria,” he said.
Gorenc’s key message to commanders and airmen during “these times of change and this expansion of mission across a vast area” can be summed up in three words: “Trust, respect and mentoring,” he said. That means trust in leadership and respect for one’s peers.
“Mentoring” is key because “regardless of the cuts, we’re still going to have to develop a force that is ready and creates pools of people that have the potential to carry the Air Force forward,” Gorenc said.
“The only way to do that is to pass along the experience that you have to your subordinate, and not only make them as good as you are, but make them better.”